Christmas TV isn’t all about repeats this year (starting with Doctor Who)
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What to watch on TV this Christmas

Children get the best TV this year, says Rachel Cooke.

The annual story about Christmas repeats so beloved of our tabloid press came with an extra twist this year when Danny Cohen, the BBC’s director of television, “fought back” on Twitter, accusing the journalists who trot out this line about laziness. “BBC schedules full of amazing shows this Christmas,” he wrote, before having a good go at the Mirror, which had insisted that 63 per cent of the BBC’s festive output this year would consist of repeats. Crikey, I thought, as I followed all this. Cohen is right to defend the BBC. If he won’t, why should anyone else? But I felt the fear, too. No one loves the “TV’s Christmas reheats” story the way the Daily Mail does. His wife might like to consider giving him a hard hat and a flak jacket this holiday season.

Still, Cohen can take heart from being (more or less) right. Naturally, ITV has asked Julian Fellowes to dial in a Downton Abbey special, and he has obliged with an episode in which Lord Sinderby invites his new daughter-in-law, Rose, and her awful relatives up to Northumberland to shoot Lord Grantham . . . sorry, I mean grouse (Christmas Day, 9pm). But this, alas, is pretty much it from ITV when it comes to delivering the sorts of shows – comforting and more than a little camp – in front of which Britain’s middle classes are apt to flop with their Crabbie’s ginger wine and chocolate brazils. By contrast, BBC1 not only has Doctor Who (Christmas Day, 6.15pm) and Call the Midwife (Christmas Day, 7.50pm), but the return of Sally Wainwright’s brilliant Last Tango in Halifax (28 December, 9pm) as well as Mapp and Lucia, an adaptation by Steve Pemberton of E F Benson’s divinely funny novels (about two competitively snobbish spinsters in 1930s Rye), starring Anna Chancellor, Miranda Richardson and the biggest set of dentures since Dick Emery’s vicar (29 December, 9.05pm). Of course, I accept that you may not be in a camp mood. Sloe gin and too many Quality Street may simply have increased your misanthropy exponentially – in which case, tune in to Wallander (BBC4, Boxing Day, 9pm), the very first Swedish version of Henning Mankell’s first Wallander novel. This is its British premiere.

For children, there comes an embarrassment of riches in the form of The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm, Charlie Higson’s adaptation of Norman Hunter’s much-loved book (BBC1, Christmas Eve, 8.30pm; Harry Hill stars); The Boy in the Dress, an adaptation of David Walliams’s adorable novel (BBC1, Boxing Day, 6.55pm); and Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot (BBC1, New Year’s Day, 6.30pm), in which Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman bring Quentin Blake’s illustrations to life.

Ditto for culture vultures: on Christmas Day BBC4 will screen the Royal Ballet’s Winter’s Tale (7pm) and on 20 December Jeremy Paxman plays Santa (or something) in Christmas University Challenge (BBC2, 8.35pm; the novelist Jonathan Coe is among those taking part). Less highbrow, but twice the fun – like Michael Frayn gone wrong – will be Panto! Mayhem, Make-up and Magic (BBC4, 22 December, 9.25pm), in which a documentary team goes backstage at the Nottingham Arts Theatre as it attempts to stage a Christmas show on a budget of £600. That Day We Sang (BBC2, Boxing Day, 9pm) is Victoria Wood’s TV version of her own musical. Set in Manchester in 1929 and 1969, it tells the story of middle-aged Enid and Tubby as they attend a reunion of the choir in which they sang as children. Imelda Staunton plays Enid and Michael Ball is Tubby, which will be recommendation enough for anyone who saw them in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. On the subject of singing, I also commend The Kid in the Middle, a documentary about Sammy Davis Jr (BBC4, 21 December, 9pm).

Finally: comedy, which has a distinctly valedictory air this year. Man Down, Greg Davies’s batty sitcom about a disaster-prone teacher called Dan, will struggle on without Rik Mayall (who played Dan’s father) in a one-off seasonal special on 23 December (Channel 4, 10pm), and Miranda Hart will say goodbye to the character that made her a household name on BBC1 on Christmas Day (7.15pm) and New Year’s Day (8pm). James Corden’s caper The Wrong Mans, which styles itself as a comedy-drama but seems mostly to want to make us smile, returns to BBC2 on 22 December (9pm), and I don’t expect we’ll see it again for some time, if ever, given that its star is off to host a network chat show in the US.

Toodle-pip, then, to all three. Or, as Mapp and Lucia would have it: au reservoir for now. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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